THE VANITY OF MEN

THE last months had been a time of great anxiety to Lord Balnillo. In
spite of his fine steering, and though he had escaped from
molestation, he was not comfortable as he saw the imprisonments and
confiscations that were going on; and the precariousness of all that
had been secure disturbed him and made him restless. He was unsettled,
too, by his long stay in Edinburgh, and he hankered afresh after the
town life in which he had spent so many of his years. His trees and
parks interested him still, but he looked on them, wondering how long
he would be allowed to keep them. He was lonely, and he missed James,
whom he had not seen since long before Culloden, the star of whose
destiny had led him out again into the world of chance.

He had the most upsetting scheme under consideration that a man of his
age can entertain. At sixty-four it is few people who think seriously
of changing their state, yet this was what David Balnillo had in mind;
for he had found so many good reasons for offering his hand to
Christian Flemington that he had decided at last to take that
portentous step. The greatest of these was the effect that an alliance
with the Whig lady would produce in the quarters from which he feared
trouble. His estate would be pretty safe if Madam Flemington reigned
over it.

It was pleasant to picture her magnificent presence at his table; her
company would rid country life of its dulness, and on the visits to
Edinburgh, which he was sure she would wish to make, the new Lady
Balnillo would turn their lodging into a bright spot in society. He
smoothed his silk stockings as he imagined the stir that his belated
romance would make. He would be the hero of it, and its heroine,
besides being a safeguard to his property, would be a credit to
himself.

There were some obstacles to his plan, and one of them was Archie; but
he believed that, with a little diplomacy, that particular difficulty
might be overcome. He would attack that side of the business in a very
straightforward manner. He would make Madam Flemington understand that
he was large-minded enough to look upon the episode in which he had
borne the part of victim in a reasonable yet airy spirit. In the game
in which their political differences had brought them face to face the
honours had been with the young man; he would admit that with a smile
and with the respect that one noble enemy accords to another. He would
assure her that bygones should be bygones, and that when he claimed
Archie as his grandson-in-law, he would do so without one grudging
backward glance at the circumstances in which they had first met. His
magnanimity seemed to him an almost touching thing, and he played with
the idea of his own apposite grace when, in some sly but genial
moment, he would suggest that the portrait upstairs should be
finished.

What had given the final touch to his determination was a message that
James had contrived to send him, which removed the last scruple from
his heart. His brother’s danger had weighed upon David, and it was not
only its convenience to himself at this juncture which made him
receive it with relief. Logie was leaving the country for Holland, and
the next tidings of him would come from there, should he be lucky
enough to reach its shores alive.

Since the rescue of Gourlay the neighbourhood of the Muir of Pert–the
last of his haunts in which Logie could trust himself–had become
impossible for him, and he was now striving to get to a creek on the
coast below Peterhead. It was some time since a roof had been over
him, and the little cottage from which Flemington had despatched his
urgent warning stood empty. Its inmate had been his unsuspected
connection with the world since his time of wandering had begun; for
though his fatal mistake in discovering this link in his chain of
communication to Flemington had made him abjure its shelter, he had
had no choice for some time between the Muir and any other place.

The western end of the county swarmed with troops. Montrose was
subdued; the passes of the Grampians were watched; there remained only
this barren tract west of the river; and the warning brought to him
from a nameless source had implored him to abandon it before the
soldiery, which his informant assured him was collecting to sweep it
from end to end, should range itself on its borders.

Archie had withheld his name when he sent the dweller in the little
hovel speeding into the night. He was certain that in making it known
to James he would defeat his own ends, for Logie would scarcely be
disposed to trust his good faith, and might well look on the message
as a trick to drive him into some trap waiting for him between the
Muir and the sea.

James did not give his brother any details of his projected flight; he
merely bade him an indefinite good-bye. The game was up–even he was
obliged to admit that–and Ferrier, whose ardent spirit had been one
with his own since the beginning of all things, was already making for
a fishing village, from which he hoped to be smuggled out upon the
high seas. Nothing further could be gained in Angus for the Stuart
cause. The friends had spent themselves since April in their
endeavours to resuscitate the feeling in the country, but there was no
more money to be raised, no more men to be collected. They told
themselves that all they could do now was to wait in the hope of a day
when their services might be needed again. That day would find them
both ready, if they were above ground.

David knew that, had James been in Scotland, he would not have dared
to think of bringing Christian Flemington to Balnillo.

He had a feeling of adventure when he started from his own door for
Ardguys. The slight awe with which Christian still inspired him, even
when she was most gracious, was beginning to foreshadow itself, and he
knew that his bones would be mighty stiff on the morrow; there was no
riding of the circuit now to keep him in practice in the saddle. But
he was not going to give way to silly apprehensions, unsuited to his
age and position; he would give himself every chance in the way of
effect. The servant who rode after him carried a handsome riding-suit
for his master to don at Forfar before making the last stage of his
road. It grieved Balnillo to think how much of the elegance of his
well-turned legs must be unrevealed by his high boots. He was a
personable old gentleman, and his grey cob was worthy of carrying an
eligible wooer. He reached Ardguys, and dismounted under its walls on
the following afternoon.

He had sent no word in front of him. Christian rose when he was
ushered into her presence, and laid down the book in her hand,
surprised.

“You are as unexpected as an earthquake,” she exclaimed, as she saw
who was her visitor.

“But not as unwelcome?” said David.

“Far from it. Sit down, my lord. I had begun to forget that
civilization existed, and now I am reminded of it.”

He bowed, delighted.

A few messages and compliments, a letter or two despatched by hand,
had been their only communications since the judge left Edinburgh, and
his spirits rose as he found that she seemed really pleased to see
him.

“And what has brought you?” asked Christian, settling herself with the
luxurious deliberation of a cat into the large chair from which she
had risen. “Something good, certainly.”

“The simple desire to see you, ma’am. Could anything be better?”

It was an excellent opening; but he had never, even in his youth, been
a man who ran full tilt upon anything. He had scarcely ever before
made so direct a speech.

She smiled, amused. There had been plenty of time for thought in her
solitude; but, though she had thought a good deal about him, she had
not a suspicion of his errand. She saw people purely in relation to
the uses she had for them, and, officially, she had pronounced him
harmless to the party in whose interests she had kept him at her side.
The circumstances were not those which further sentiment.

“I have spent this quiet time in remembering your kindnesses to me,”
he began, inspired by her smile.

“You call it a quiet time?” she interrupted. “I had not looked on it
in that way. Quiet for us, perhaps, but not for the country.”

“True, true,” said he, in the far-away tone in which some people seek
to let unprofitable subjects melt.

Now that the active part of the rebellion had become history, she had
no hesitation in speaking out from her solid place on the winning
side.

“This wretched struggle is over, and we may be plain with one another,
Lord Balnillo,” she continued. “You, at least, have had much to alarm
you.”

“I have been a peaceful servant of law and order all my life,” said
he, “and as such I have conceived it my place to stand aloof. It has
been my duty to restrain violence of all kinds.”

“But you have not restrained your belongings,” she observed boldly.

He was so much taken aback that he said nothing.

“Well, my lord, it is one of my regrets that I have never seen Captain
Logie. At least you have to be proud of a gallant man,” she went on,
with the same impulse that makes all humanity set a fallen child upon
its legs.

But Balnillo had a genius for scrambling to his feet.

“My brother has left the country in safety,” he rejoined, with one of
those random flashes of sharpness that had stood him in such good
stead. His cunning was his guardian angel; for he did not know what
she knew–namely, that Archie had left Fort Augustus in pursuit of
James.

“Indeed?” she said, silenced.

She was terribly disappointed, but she hid her feelings in barefaced
composure.

The judge drew his chair closer. Here was another opening, and his
very nervousness pushed him towards it.

“Ma’am,” he began, clearing his throat, “I shall not despair of
presenting James to you. When the country is settled–if–in
short—-”

“I imagine that Captain Logie will hardly trust himself in Scotland
either in my lifetime or in yours. We are old, you and I,” she added,
the bitterness of her disappointment surging through her words.

She watched him to see whether this barbed truth pierced him; it
pierced herself as she hurled it.

“Maybe,” said he; “but age has not kept me from the business I have
come upon. I have come to put a very particular matter before you.”

She was still unsuspicious, but she grew impatient. He had wearied her
often in Edinburgh with tedious histories of himself, and she had
endured them then for reasons of policy; but she felt no need of doing
so here. It was borne in upon her, as it has been borne in upon many
of us, that a person who is acceptable in town may be unendurable in
the country. She had not thought of that as she welcomed him.

“Ma’am,” he went on, intent on nothing but his affair, “I may surprise
you–I trust I shall not offend you. At least you will approve the
feelings of devotion, of respect, of admiration which have brought me
here. I have an ancient name, I have sufficient means–I am not
ill-looking, I believe—-”

“Are you making me a proposal, my lord?”

She spoke with an accent of derision; the sting of it was sharp in her
tone.

“There is no place for ridicule, ma’am. I see nothing unsuitable in my
great regard for you.”

He spoke with real dignity.

She had not suspected him of having any, personally, and she had
forgotten that an inherited stock of it was behind him. The rebuke
astonished her so much that she scarcely knew what reply to make.

“As I said, I believe I am not ill-looking,” he repeated, with an air
that lost him his advantage. “I can offer you such a position as you
have a right to expect.”

“You also offer me a brother-in-law whose destination may be the
scaffold,” she said brutally; “do not forget that.”

This was not to be denied, and for a moment he was put out. But it was
on these occasions that he shone.

“Let us dismiss family matters from our minds and think only of
ourselves,” said he; “my brother is an outlaw, and as such is
unacceptable to you, and your grandson has every reason to be ashamed
to meet me. We can set these disadvantages, one against the other, and
agree to ignore them.”

“I am not disposed to ignore Archie,” said she.

“Well, ma’am, neither am I. I hope I am a large-minded man–indeed, no
one can sit on the bench for the time that I have sat on it and not
realize the frailty of all creatures—-”

“My lord—-” began Christian.

But it is something to have learned continuance of speech
professionally, and Balnillo was launched; also his own magnanimous
attitude had taken his fancy.

“I will remember nothing against him,” said he. “I will forget his
treatment of my hospitality, and the discreditable uses to which he
put my roof.”

“Sir!” broke in Christian.

“I will remember that, according to his lights, he was in the exercise
of his duty. Whatsoever may be my opinion of the profession to which
he was compelled, I will thrust it behind me with the things best
forgotten.”

“That is enough, Lord Balnillo,” cried Madam Flemington, rising.

“Sit, madam, sit. Do not disturb yourself! Understand me, that I will
allow every leniency. I will make every excuse! I will dwell, not on
the fact that he was a spy, but on his enviable relationship to
yourself.”

She stood in the middle of the room, threatening him with her eyes.
Some people tremble when roused to the pitch of anger that she had
reached; some gesticulate; Christian was still.

He had risen too.

“If you suppose that I could connect myself with a disloyal house you
are much mistaken,” she said, controlling herself with an effort. “I
have no quarrel with your name, Lord Balnillo; it is old enough. My
quarrel is with the treason in which it has been dipped. But I am very
well content with my own. Since I have borne it, I have kept it clean
from any taint of rebellion.”

“But I have been a peaceful man,” he protested. “As I told you, the
law has been my profession. I have raised a hand against no one.”

“Do you think I do not know you?” exclaimed she. “Do you suppose that
my ears were shut in the winter, and that I heard nothing in all the
months I spent in Edinburgh? What of that, Lord Balnillo?”

“You made no objection to me then, ma’am. I was made happy by being of
service to you.”

She laughed scornfully.

“Let us be done with this,” she said. “You have offered yourself to me
and I refuse the offer. I will add my thanks.”

The last words were a masterpiece of insolent civility.

A gilt-framed glass hung on the wall, one of the possessions that she
had brought with her from France. David suddenly caught sight of his
own head reflected in it above the lace cravat for which he had paid
so much; the spectacle gathered up his recollections and his present
mortification, and fused them into one stab of hurt vanity.

“I see that you can make no further use of me,” he said.

“None.”

He walked out of the room. At the door he turned and bowed.

“If you will allow me, I will call for my horse myself,” said he.

He went out of the house and she stood where she was, thinking of what
he had told her about his brother; she had set her heart upon Archie’s
success in taking Logie, and now the man had left the country and his
chance was gone. The proposal to which she had just listened did not
matter to her one way or the other, though he had offended her by the
attitude he took up when making it. He was unimportant. It was of
Archie that she thought as she watched the judge and his servant ride
away between the ash-trees. They were crossing the Kilpie burn when
her maid came in, bringing a letter. The writing on it was strange to
Christian.

“Who has brought this?” she asked as she opened it.

“Just a callant,” replied the girl.

She read the letter, which was short. It was signed ‘R. Callandar,
Captain,’ and was written at Archie Flemington’s request to tell her
that he was under arrest at Brechin on a charge of conspiring with the
king’s enemies.

The writer added a sentence, unknown, as he explained, to Flemington.

“The matter is serious,” he wrote, “the Duke of Cumberland is still in
Edinburgh. It might be well if you could see him. Make no delay, as we
await his orders.”

She stood, turning cold, her eyes fixed on the maid.

“Eh–losh, mem!” whimpered Mysie, approaching her with her hands
raised.

Madam Flemington felt as though her brain refused to work. There
seemed to be nothing to drive it forward. The world stood still. The
walls, an imprisoning horror, shut her in from all movement, all
action, when action was needed. She had never felt Ardguys to be so
desperately far from the reach of humanity, herself so much cut off
from it, as now. And yet she must act. Her nearest channel of
communication was the judge, riding away.

“Fool!” she cried, seizing Mysie, “run–run! Send the boy after Lord
Balnillo. Tell him to run!”

The maid hesitated, staring at the pallor of her mistress’s face.

“Eh, but, mem–sit you down!” she wailed.

Christian thrust her from her path as though she had been a piece of
furniture, and swept into the hall. A barefooted youth was outside by
the door. He stared at her, as Mysie had done. She took him by the
shoulder.

“Run! Go instantly after those horses! That is Lord Balnillo!” she
cried, pointing to the riders, who were mounting the rise beyond the
burn. “Tell him to return at once. Tell him he must come back!”

He shook off her grip and ran. He was a corner-boy from Brechin and he
had a taste for sensation.

Madam Flemington went back into her room. Mysie followed her,
whimpering still, and she pushed her outside and sank down in her
large chair. She could not watch the window, for fear of going mad.

She sat still and steady until she heard the thud of bare feet on the
stone steps, and then she hurried out.

“He tell’t me he wadna bide,” said the corner-boy breathlessly. “He
was vera well obliged to ye, he bad’ me say, but he wadna bide.”

Christian left him and shut herself into the room, alone. Callandar’s
bald lines had overpowered her completely, leaving no place in her
brain for anything else. But now she saw her message from Lord
Balnillo’s point of view, and anger and contempt flamed up again, even
in the midst of her trouble.

“The vanity of men! Ah, God, the vanity of men!” she cried, throwing
out her hands, as though to put the whole race of them from her.